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Gravel Loop????

Will we have a Gravel Loop this year? I really enjoyed that last year!!!

77 Replies

KenH, May 11, 2016 at 12:53 pm

I think that if the weather softens the road to any degree at all or the loose gravel is too deep for narrow tires it will become unpleasant long before it becomes unsafe! The snow melted in northern Illinois by late February this year so I was out on the local trails by then. My 38’s bogged down to the point where I just didn’t want to ride the unpaved portion of one trail the first time I tried it this year. It was a matter of the pedaling effort required, not safety. It is very likely that you will be able to ride this year’s loop on 23’s. My experience last year was that many if not most, of the riders who took it at the same time I did were on tires that narrow. It’s just that those of us on wider tires had bigger smiles on our faces!!


bradcss, June 26, 2016 at 3:24 pm

Gravel Loop is a STUPID idea in my opinion, unless you are one of those people riding those bikes with the fat off-road tires. You will likely find yourself as one of many people with flat tires and a fall off your bike…just isnt worth the risk/trouble when trying to complete this marathon.

Century ride = a great idea if you are physically fit enough for it.


Brian Wallenburg, June 26, 2016 at 7:27 pm

Way to much risk for me on 700/23’s. Not to mention how much I have invested in my bike, dust, dirt and grime is not a good idea with so many miles to go before we see the Mississippi. If I had Ken’s 38’s and heavy duty components that don’t mind the dirt, I’d be there. Rode bikes are referred to as road bikes for a reason. I’m sure it’s a good time on the right bike.


KenH, June 26, 2016 at 9:37 pm

If the gravel loop is stupid then the Karras loop is stupid too. Neither one is stupid because neither one is forced on anyone. However the earlier years of RAGBRAI did commonly have gravel sections not by design, apparently, but because of last minute road construction. In the more modern era that has been avoided. I thought it was very ironic that for that short section of gravel around a last minute construction project last year we were forced to dismount and walk it.

I can understand if you don’t want to take your road bike on gravel roads. My Fuji is a run of the mill $1200 bike. It is a performance hybrid or as they now call them a flat bar road bike. It has a wider than normal (for a road bike) aluminum frame that will take fairly wide tires and a carbon fiber fork. It’s geometry is virtually identical to their entry level road bikes at the same price point in the year it was made and it is not obviously more rugged than their entry level road bikes. It does have a 3×10 drivetrain however whereas the road bikes were 2×10. So I am not risking a $3000 road rocket when I take the gravel loop and I am not going to ridicule those who refuse to do that.

On the other hand, last year’s gravel loop certainly was no worse than the Paris-Roubaix road race and world class road rockets can take the pounding of that race. So your beloved road bike probably could take the gravel loop although it might shorten the life of the bike some, I suppose. The pros don’t worry about “little” things like that! Personally I don’t think you want to run 23s on the gravel. If I were going to do it on a road bike I’d put a 25 on the front and a 28 on the rear for that day, assuming they would fit and I’d run 28s on both ends if I could.

I can tell you that running last year’s gravel loop on 38s was little different than running on pavement. And 38s give you that much more margin for error against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on every mile of paved road at RAGBRAI too. The Vittoria Voyager Hypers that I run have excellent rolling resistance and while they are not aerodynamic, that is less of a concern unless you imagine that you can somehow “win” RAGBRAI. If my beloved Fuji should wear out before I do then I will replace it with something more like a road bike simply because I hated the flat bars it came with and had to undertake a long journey to find bars that I do like for long distance riding and are compatible with mountain bike brakes and shifters. I would not get a road bike proper however, I would get a touring bike with drops and a frame that would take decently wide tires. Perhaps by the time this happens Vittoria will be making some sweet rolling Hypers in 54 mm. That would be some fine riding!


Jason Stoller, June 27, 2016 at 12:36 am

Ken what about taking a fully suspended Trike with 1.6 Schwalbe Marathon Supremes on the Gravel Loop? I was going to do the Katy Trail with them and I have fenders on the trike. Do you think my trike will get beat up on the Gravel loop?



Jack in VA, June 27, 2016 at 12:50 am

There were several stretches of gravel in years past – some due to unforeseen construction detours, and a few that happened to be part of the route. The worst for me was back in ’03 or ’04: it was raining all day and we had to take a 4 – 5 mile stretch of gravel (mud / muck) road. Fortunately there no large climbs / descents; just a wet mucky road. EVERYONE came off with brown race stripes on their butts and jersey backs – almost all of the locals in the next town we came through were letting riders hose off their bikes and themselves.

My recommendation for riding gravel; keep your wheels rolling smoothly, and don’t do anything stupid, like quick fast sudden changes or movements. And don’t go barreling down the road like you’re on the Tour de France; smooth and steady will do it just fine. Everyone seems to just freak out over gravel – it isn’t that bad. If any of you are mountain bikers, you already know how to handle the gravel roads. And it’s not going to cause your $$$$ bike to disintegrate or crack the frame or other damage other components. It will get dusty (or muddy if raining) so clean it (and yourself) off afterwards.
Bottom line – don’t have a cow man! Try something new and different. Besides, there will be a LOT of riders who will NOT do the loop, so it gives you a little respite from the mass and crowds.

BTW, I’ve always done the gravel stretches on a road bike with 23’s with absolutely NO TROUBLE AT ALL – the past few years were on fixed gear.


William Mugan, June 27, 2016 at 7:46 am

Jack in VA,

Good summary. I’ve also done gravel sections on RAGBRAI on a standard road bike with 700×23 tires without any issues.

Hope to see you there – on the gravel loop :-)



KenH, June 27, 2016 at 8:29 am

I don’t think a fully suspended trike with 1.6 inch tires will have any trouble with gravel! I did not have a lot of experience with gravel when they announced the gravel loop last year. So I sought out a gravel road to ride before RAGBRAI. They are rare in these parts and the one I found most convenient to ride was only two miles long. I headed down it with my tires at road pressure, ie max rated pressure. This was a road with larger stones than last year’s gravel loop and there were no compressed tire tracks to ride in. It was astonishingly rough, I question how well 23s would have handled it. After a mile of this I’d had enough. I stopped and dropped my tire pressure to the Berto pressure, about 40 front and 60 rear. It was almost like being on a paved road again! All that advice they give you about riding on gravel? Yeah, you can just forget it and ride any where and any way you like. THAT is why I like fat tires for gravel and if you pump them back up to 90 pounds at gravel’s end they don’t slow you down on the road and you can laugh at most paved road hazards too. If you have suspension you may not need to run lower pressure to enjoy the gravel. If you have 23s you don’t DARE run lower pressure on gravel!

And no, gravel is not going to destroy your bike. But vibration is vibration. It will eventually break something and you get more of it on gravel that on freshly paved roads. So gravel is one of many things that can accelerate your bike’s eventual demise. It’s just that for most of us the lure of a new bike takes over long before metal fatigue sets in! There are exceptions. I had a rail on my saddle break during RAGBRAI in 2014, long before I had ridden more than a couple hundred yards of gravel.


Jason Stoller, June 27, 2016 at 9:00 am

Thanks for the skinny skinny Ken. Fronts are 20x406x1.6 and rear is a 26 x 1.6. They are all folding tires. I just worry about traction and mud build up between the fenders and wheels if it’s wet or rains that day. From the pictures you provided, if you hit a section of the road that is mostly dirt I can see where that could be a real problem.



jwsknk, June 27, 2016 at 9:07 am

for many years the century and gravel were not optional. they were there, deal with it. Might be gravel more than once a week getting into or out of a town that only had one paved way in (or out). Might be getting to a county line where the next county hadn’t paved that road. Could be 1, 3, 5 miles to where the pavement picked up again. But that slimy muddy mess I think was the final straw, so many opted to go off route around that they pretty much had 2 routes that day foe awhile.


jonlumpkin, June 27, 2016 at 10:39 am

I’ll be on the gravel on my road bike. Running fat 25s (27.5mm on my SL23 rims) front and rear. Still debating on pressure and I plan on doing some testing on NC gravel over the next few weeks so see how low I’m willing to go. If they don’t feel too squirrely or subject to pinch flatting I may run as low as 55psi up front and 60psi in the rear to improve traction and compliance. I normally run 85/90 with that setup on pavement at 170 pounds.

At the end of the day a gravel road is still a road and your road bike can handle it. This isn’t a technical singletrack trail in the mountains that we’re talking about. Just ride conservative, take it easy in the corners, and avoid panic braking on the soft stuff. You’ll be fine. Dirt washes off bikes and dings from rocks add character.


andytetmeyer, June 27, 2016 at 11:19 am

I’ve ridden thousands of miles of upper midwest gravel in the past 9 years. Here are some hints:
Lower tire pressure is your friend.
25mm or wider tires are your friend, wider rims will give you the same end result, but I doubt any of you are going to purchase new wheels for gravel. 32mm or so is ideal and can be plenty fast on the road at 60 psi. Frankly there’s really no reason to ride a 23mm tire on ragbrai.
Unless the county road crew does something odd, it’s been my experience that the surface should be pretty well packed by July. Fresh gravel generally gets applied in the spring. If for some reason the surface is deep and slow from fresh rocks, try the edge – even a couple inches into the grass. It is sometimes harder and smoother than the middle. Not always, but sometimes. Ride all over the road to find the best surface – just like on the rest of the ride, but there will be way less traffic.
Dirt is not going to wreck your bike unless you don’t clean it off.


bradcss, June 28, 2016 at 10:13 pm

KenH has a lot of good comments here, but his logic on the gravel loop is dead wrong. Just because there was gravel sections in the “earlier years” does not make it a good idea. If you have a road bike STAY OFF THE GRAVEL LOOP, you are only asking for trouble and you have a very long way to go after that loop. The guy asking about a “fully suspended trike” … same advice. It’s likely that your bike had road tires, but if you have off-road (or dual-duty type tires) give it a shot (if you want to risk it go ahead). And yes, I know what I am talking about…I am an Iowa boy who grew up riding his bike on Iowa gravel. The bikes we grew up on as kids could handle the gravel…now that I am riding a carbon fiber Cannondale road bike…no way.


mootsman, June 29, 2016 at 7:14 am


Gravel is easy on a road bike as long as you keep it straight and smooth with no abrupt lane changes. I heard of no crashes last year. I road it on a road bike with road tires (25s). KenH also has good advice and is not wrong. If gravel frightens you staying off is the right way for you. But few who ride country roads are frightened by it since most have hit gravel stretches. It’s not as tricky as riding true off-road unpaved trails which many of us have done also.

I saw only 1 person with a flat on the whole loop last year. Since gravel causes pinch flats mostly rather then punctures tubeless tires help if you have tubless compatible rims.


KenH, June 29, 2016 at 7:50 am

Well gravel certainly is a controversial topic, eh? I’d guess that maybe 1% of riders last year took the loop. I brought along half a dozen CO2 cartridges to give out to all the 23mm tire junkies with pinch flats. They are still in the trunk bag on my Fuji. I didn’t see anyone fixing a flat or broken down. I saw a couple on a FAT tire tandem who just smoked the rest of us! At Pomeroy I saw a few dozen riders basking the glow of an experience that surely was a lot like that first RAGBRAI, if only for a few miles, in terms of the number of riders. I saw a gravel road with up to four well compressed automobile tire tracks that gave road bike riders a four lane highway with way more capacity than they needed for almost the entire length of the loop. Even though they did not dare let any air out of those tires (well ok, maybe a LITTLE out of the FRONT) those tire tracks were probably no rougher than the roughest part of the paved roads we took that year. Certainly not as rough as the odd rumble strip you can get forced to take by traffic conditions.

I can’t tell you what the loop is like this year, I don’t live anywhere near it. I can’t tell you that your bike will survive the loop any more than I can assure you that it will survive the paved route of RAGBRAI this year. Bikes do break, your bike could break at any time during RAGBRAI and few of us have any kind of plan to deal with that other than to wait for the SAG wagon and see what’s for sale in the next town. There is no shame in skipping the gravel loop but I see no reason to fear it either. My bike is aluminum except for the fork which is carbon fiber. So far I have seen neither material showing signs of distress and while I do not mistreat my bike, I do not baby it either. It is as rugged as I am.

I hope to see some of you out on the gravel. I’ll be there and unless torrential rains turn its two apparently dirt miles into ankle deep mud I’ll be one of the crazies who turns his nose up at the paved road that leads back to the main route from Imogene in favor of the gravel road a mile south of it!


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